When 31-year-old Travis Kauffman went to Horseshoe Mountain Park for a run on February 4, he didn’t expect to fight for his life with one of the region’s most elusive predators.
Kauffman, who’s 5-foot-10 and weighs 150 pounds, said at a press conference with Colorado Parks and Wildlife that he heard pine needles rustling on the trail behind him.
“I stopped and turned,” he told KUNC radio. “And it’s one of those situations where sometimes I turn, sometimes I don’t. But in the back of my mind I always wonder if it’s something dangerous like a bear or a bobcat or a mountain lion, and in this case it was in fact a mountain lion.”
After a powerful lunge, the cat clamped its jaws on Kauffman’s wrist and clawed at his face and neck, Kauffman said. Mountain lions are ambush hunters, waiting in rocky crevices or vegetation for prey to skitter by, then pouncing.
Kauffman told KUNC that he was able to pin the mountain lion’s legs and get purchase on the cat’s throat.
“I got my right foot onto its neck,” he said. “And then I was able to get some weight onto its windpipe and that’s what eventually suffocated it.”
Human-mountain lion interactions are very rare. You are more likely to drown in your bathtub, be killed by a pet dog, or hit by lightning, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation.
“Lions hunt four-legged prey and humans are not typically in their diet,” Mike Porrass from Colorado Parks and Wildlife told the Denver Post.
But a few factors may explain why this particular encounter happened: The young mountain lion may have been orphaned or starving, or both.
An ‘incredibly weird’ young mountain lion
But Mark Elbroch, director of the puma program at Panthera, a wild-cat conservation organization, told Business Insider that the animal’s reported weight and age don’t match up.
“35 to 40 pounds is tiny, that means we’re talking about an animal that’s six months old. It would be incredibly weird if it were one year old,” he said. “Either the weight’s wrong or the age.”
Plus, Elbroch added, “regardless of whether it’s six months or a year old, it should be with mom.”
Mountain lions, like all big cats, have a learning period to develop the requisite skills for killing or subduing prey. The largest cats have the longest learning curve, Elbroch said — “that’s one of the reasons they stay with their moms the longest.”
According to the National Park Service, mountain lions become capable hunters at six months, but remain with their mother for another year after that, finally leaving at 18 months to fend for themselves. Cougars any younger than that are generally still being taught what is and isn’t cougar prey.
So this cat, at just a year old, shouldn’t have been hunting alone. That’s why Elbroch’s first question after news of the encounter emerged was, “was it with mom?”
During the fight, Kauffman said he was waiting for other cats to burst through the trees and join in, but none came.
Elbroch said he knows of one other instance in which a mountain lion was a similar weight at one year old. That cat didn’t have a mother.
“This lion was orphaned as a youngster and had a starvation period,” he said of that case. “It stunted her growth.”
The lion that attacked Kauffman may have suffered a similar fate, Elbroch said. A comparable hypothesis was also floated last year to explain why two bikers in Washington state were attacked by a mountain lion.
The Colorado mountain lion may have been starving
Mountain lions are known to hunt coyotes, raccoons, rodents, elk, feral hogs, and even porcupines. But getting enough to eat is challenging for juvenile lions. Dominant males may kill young lions that enter their territories, so juveniles sometimes have to eke out a living in marginal habitats, according to the National Park Service. That can lead them to starve, perhaps getting hungry enough to risk a confrontation with humans.
Mountain lion attacks on livestock or pets usually involve a hungry juvenile that has been pushed into a marginal habitat.
“Evidence shows that the hungrier an animal is, not just a mountain lion but other animals too, the more likely it is to hunt in a suburban area,” Elbroch said.
In the case of the other undersized, orphaned mountain lion, Elbroch added, the cat never went near anything as big as a human.
“She only went for a porcupine, and it killed her,” he said.
If the Colorado attack had involved an older or larger mountain lion, Elbroch noted, it would have been harder for Kauffman to fend it off because the animal would have been “a lot heavier and a heck of a lot stronger.” But an adult would not have been any more skilled or efficient at attacking a human.
“No mountain lion has practice hunting people,” Elbroch said.